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Going Whole Hog: Cooking for a Bunch

by John Raven, Ph.B.

Over on the Ask Dr. John Q&A side of the page, one of the most frequent queries is, "I want to cook a whole pig in a pit in the ground for my daughter/son's graduation next Saturday. Please send directions and recipes."

You know, boys and girls, there are some things you just don't learn from a book or even an instruction video. Some things can only be learned from experience. Cooking a whole pig or half a cow at one time is one of those things.

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I know over in Hawaii, there is a luau pig served every fifteen minutes, but it's done by professionals. They have nice, soft sand to dig in. More than likely, they use a backhoe to dig the pit. They have a ready supply of banana leaves. More than likely, the guy who runs the operation has been doing this for years.

The way we would have to prepare a pit roasting here is to wrap the meat in clean cloths or foil to keep the ashes and dirt out. So, you end up with steamed meat that does not get any magical flavoring from the fire or the smoke. In Hawaii, they have the nice, fresh banana leaves, etc., that they use, and may get some flavor from that.

I have done extensive research on the subject. One particular item I read lists the supplies needed for cooking a whole pig in a pit. Some of the essentials are:

  • 1 hog (a 95-pound pig does nicely for approximately 120 people)
  • 4 to 5 bushels of grapefruit-sized river rock or granite
  • 40 to 50 pieces of dry, split firewood, plus kindling
  • Sheet steel, one or several pieces to total approximately 4 feet square
  • Chicken wire -- one 4-foot section for each pig quarter
  • Carpet scrap, approximately 1 foot longer in length and width of pit
  • 150 feet of wide, heavy-duty aluminum foil -- the thickest you can locate
  • 2 to 3 12-inch bundles of newspaper, plus a container in which to soak them. (A clean garbage can or large wheelbarrow works well. The Wall Street Journal is perfect because it's not loaded with inserts, and every page is exactly the same size.)
  • 75 to 100 pounds of cast-off vegetables such as cabbage leaves, lettuce or corn shucks/stalks/leaves. (Most grocery store produce departments will save this for you if you pick it up daily.)
You think you can you gather all that and have it ready by next Saturday?

I'm not trying to rain on your parade; I just don't want you making a big mess out of something you want to be special.

Walter Jetton was the barbecue master for President Lyndon Johnson. There were barbecues for the most important people in the world. Walter had a whole steer turning on a spit when the company arrived. The guests never noticed, but the barbecue they got came out of insulated containers and was cooked on Walter's big pit back home in Fort Worth. The whole steer was just for show. It became dog food after the party guest had gone home.

Let's see if we can come up with something that will be attractive and practical for cooking for a crowd. Good rule of thumb is one-third pound cooked meat for each guest. That will give you a clue as to how much you need to cook.

If you are skilled in the art of metalcraft or someone you know is, you can rig up a spit for cooking a small pig. The spit will need to be about six feet long with a crank on one end. You'll need a couple of posts of some sort to support the spit. If you can rig it so the height can be adjusted, so much the better. Otherwise, shoot for about thirty inches above the coals.

To keep from ruining your lawn or patio, you can put down about six inches of clean sand to work on. You can put the sand on a tarp for easy clean up. (I'm gonna take it for gospel that you know how to build a fire to make coals for cooking.)

A small pig, 20 to 30 pounds, will cook in five to six hours depending on the variables. If you need more than one pig, make a "twin" spit operation. A real big hog takes too long for the average person to cook.

When you put your pig on the spit, you want to rig him so the belly cavity stays open and heat can enter. Use some short sticks to prop him open if necessary. You can cover the tail and ears with foil to keep them from burning. A deal like this makes a real good show and is a good way to cook pig. Your guests will be really impressed.

If you have a yard where you can do a little digging, you can do a real pit cooking. Dig a hole about four feet by six feet and six inches deep. (Adjust the size to what you are cooking).

Get enough concrete blocks to build a wall around the perimeter of the pit. You will want to stack them about two high. Then you will need a grate to go over the pit and sit on the wall. You can get most any welder to fabricate one out of angle iron and expanded metal, or he may have a better idea.

Now you just build a fire in the pit, let it burn down to coals and grill away. You can add wood or charcoal as needed. You really need to burn in your pit before you cook on it. Build a good hot fire, put the grate on top and let it get hot. Let everything cool off normally. Brush the grate with a wire brush, and then when you are ready to put the food on, give it a coating of cooking oil. (If you want to use it again, clean and oil it before you store it).

On a pit like this, you can make an impressive show of cooking anything from chicken halves to a split goat to slabs of ribs or whatever. Whatever you cook, always use a meat thermometer to check for doneness.

We are about out of space for this month. Maybe next month we can come up with something to do a lot of slow smoking in your backyard.

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